Now for the instrument. It may sound like an easy thing to do, strapping an instrument to your back or tucking it in your luggage for a motorcycle ride, but let me assure you it is not that simple. Sure, we’ve probably all seen someone with an acoustic guitar on a bike, or maybe some other simple percussion instrument, but these are usually low in cost and rugged, not anywhere as fragile or expensive as a fine orchestral string instrument. If you’ve ever known a professional string player (violin, viola, cello, or bass) you’ll no doubt remember the near fanatical level of worry they dote over their instruments, and for good reason. Yes, a fiddle can be purchased at the local pawn shop for a few hundred dollars, but classical musicians are expected to pay into the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even MILLIONS of dollars for their tools, most of which are older than the motorcycle industry. Nearly everyone has heard the name Stardivarius, which has become the household term for a fine violin. Antonio Stradivarius perfected his violin making skills by 1700... yes, the year 1700 A.D., over 300 years ago. Old + rare + expensive + Italian = GOOD in the string tradition. String instruments are made of wood which is of course organic matter, so it’s susceptible to decay, moisture, humidity, and shock, all of which are in ample supply on a motorcycle. My viola has a rich personal history, so one of my first personal rules when starting to motorcycle was that the viola would never (okay, almost never) travel on the bike, it’s just too fragile, too valuable and irreplaceable. And camping? Fuggitabouddit. So what to do? I’ve racked my brain for over five years on how to somehow combine my love of motorcycle travel with searching for my dream symphony job, and it always seemed like a cruel irony that both involve travel but had to be mutually exclusive (the accepted method is naturally to fly and stay at hotels). Maybe I could ship my viola to my destination and ride? No, too expensive and risky for the instrument, and I’ll be in no shape to play well having just ridden across the country without practicing for days. What if I take a cheap-o student viola that is stronger, and if it gets damaged, oh well, it was cheap? No, it won’t sound good enough to be a contender in the audition. Hmmmm, stumped...
Don't want to end up with one that looks like this:
Technology to the rescue! Several inventive personalities have been working with carbon fiber technology to make instruments in recent years. Of course we motorcyclists know and love carbon fiber, it makes our machines lighter, stronger, and it looks really cool too, but the classical music world is all about tradition: rules and ceremonies that are passed down orally (and aurally) from one generation to the next, evolving very slowly. Not very often is it that something comes along to overturn the apple cart, and I believe that carbon fiber string instruments are the latest shock wave. I discovered Luis and Clark carbon fiber instruments, and since they are the only company that has actually brought instruments to the market I decided to pull the trigger and buy one, sight unseen (and more importantly sound unheard!), which was a very unusual way to purchase an instrument for a classical musician. Luis Leguia is a Boston Symphony cellist who was into racing sail boats as a hobby. His inspiration to try carbon fiber for instrument construction was hearing waves reverberating off of the hull of carbon fiber boats. Over the course of ten years he was able to experiment and now offers all four orchestra string instruments made almost entirely of beautifully woven carbon fiber. Carbon fiber and/or graphite has come to be accepted as an alternative for bows as the rain forest wood used to make them is nearing endangerment, but the instrument?!?! That’s crazy talk! Carbon fiber is of course very strong (stronger than steel of equivalent thickness!), and is unaffected by temperature and moisture, so it’s almost worry free. I’ve only had it about a couple months as of this writing, and I’ve “tested” it in every different professional situation I can think of, and it’s passed every test so far. I’ve played it in orchestra, chamber music, opera, and professional auditions. It’s been outside, under the sun, in the rain, below freezing, over 100 degrees, and in a bunch of other situations no fine viola should ever be subjected to in the time I’ve owned it, passing all those tests too. I even have a name for it: “Black Death.” If Batman played viola, this would be it! We are in business. Am I really going to do this thing?
Well... how does it sound? The short answer: Good, it is indeed a viola! It does some things astonishingly well, freakish really, better than any instrument I’ve ever laid hands on. It is LOUD! The thing has pipes (a figure of speech, it actually has strings. huh-huh...). The proportions are just right for me, and it is very responsive, so I find getting around on the instrument and playing fast to be easy. It speaks immediately, no hesitation at all! So fast I have to remember to finesse the bow and be very smooth, because it’s easy to play too loud and bright. When I pluck the open strings I’ve counted up to fourteen seconds of ringing vibrations. My “good” viola has about half that. All this responsive power has a downside, however. The main job of a violist is to blend into a warm section sound with other violists. The violas are in the middle of the orchestra (in physical location but more importantly in timbre) and our job is to bridge the tonal gap between the high pitched melody and the bass line. This viola requires great care to play in that blending way. If I don’t pay attention and get a little too aggressive it can get a metallic tinge to the sound, which is not desirable and will make my job of introducing carbon fiber as high art more difficult. Playing solo is great with this instrument! The thing wails, especially in the higher registers and the sound never breaks, it seems there is no limit to how much weight can be applied to the bow, which means more and more sound! And what player doesn’t love THAT? Will carbon fiber render wooden instruments obsolete? Not any time soon, probably never. But it IS a very interesting alternative that has many pluses and only a couple minuses. I have done some “farkles and performance mods” (as we motorcyclists put it) to make the instrument a little more friendly. My friends at Terra Nova Violins added a thicker bridge, a wooden tail piece and Obbligato strings help to soften the tone, and a sound post adjustment has really evened out the sound across the four strings. I added my special tall, fully adjustable SAS Chinrest and a black Strad Pad (they finally make them in black, just in time for my black viola, Yay!).
The master luthier Absss who helps me sound good. What up, G ?!?
Here's the new bridge Absss made me vs. the stock. You can see how much thicker the new one (on the right) is. Those tiny variations in material can make a huge difference to the player, just like having a fine tuned motorcycle with hot suspension.
My new friend Doug who's also a luthier (a person who makes/repairs string instruments). He's also a talented sculptor of sorts and is into geo-caching. Cool.
I spent the better part of a day at the shop trying out every synthetic viola bow they had to find the right relationship. Many string players believe that bow selection is just as important as choosing an instrument, or maybe even MORE important. Finally I found my Excalibur and it happened to have matching black carbon fiber weave finish, so all the better.
One HUGE benefit of all this carbon fiber is cost. The old Italian instrument and fine French bow prices are out of control these days. Carbon fiber is expensive “bling” for motorcyclists, but compared to antique wooden instruments this stuff is quite “cheap.” These Luis and Clark instruments are certainly not toys and they cost real money, but I can actually (almost) afford this experiment! Wheeeeee! (Even though that means my orange KTM dreams will not be fulfilled for some time. Darn. Patience...)
The really interesting pitfall about the carbon fiber viola is the reaction from other musicians, string players in particular. String players are definitely in that traditional “old school” mind set, in fact I think that the term “old school” could have been coined to describe string musicians. Many have trouble believing that my new instrument could sound good, even though they are hearing it with their own ears. “T’ain’t natural!” I’m the first person in Texas to have a CF viola, and probably the first professional to have a CF instrument in the state, so everyone wants to know about all about it. I’m calling it the “CFDF” - Carbon Fiber Delay Factor. Between my instrument case and my chair I’m usually horse and thirsty from fielding questions. I think that several of my colleagues made up their minds the moment they saw the instrument, and it wasn’t a favorable judgement for my “plastic” or “fiber-glass” viola. I’d say I’m facing roughly 90% skepticism from string players. The reactions of non-string player musicians (brass, woodwind, and percussion players) is “that is so cool!” and the audience loves it, especially children. I recently learned of other instruments that are starting to be made with with carbon fiber: clarinets and some percussion instruments. One of the finest clarinetists I know says point blank “it’s the wave of the future.”
The big question is: can I win an audition with this thing? I remember hearing the saying for Moto GP racers that winning is 80% rider and 20% machine (in the past anyway, I guess the technology is becoming more and more a factor for winning). I think it’s probably a similar set of numbers for an auditioning musician, but when and if the screen comes down at an audition, will the committee (which will be made up mostly of string players) make up their minds based on the fact that my viola isn’t made of wood? My experience so far is unfortunately yes. If it’s a blind audition all the way then it shouldn’t matter, unless the sound is actually repulsive compared to wood, but I don’t believe that. Winning a job is hard! (Interesting that we call it “winning,” not “getting” or “earning.” It really is a kind of wacky lottery... You just have to have your good day at the right place at the right time) I’ve been moderately successful at auditions, but I have a long way to go. Is this really a fight I want to wage right now? Winning the audition is difficult enough as it is, but to do it with unproven technology that the committee will almost certainly hold against me? All of the places I’ve taken the CF viola have been firsts, there’s never been one before, and I expect that at the highest level of competition it will be the same story, I will be the only one crazy enough to bring one. Different isn’t always good... The “other” carbon fiber instrument company, Quintus, has developed carbon fiber instruments that have more traditional shapes and even the appearance of wood grain, but sadly the violas are still in the prototype phase and not available to the public (according to their website, more investigation is needed...). Perhaps I need to become one of their testers, I wouldn’t go easy on them!
Speaking of testing... Tomorrow when I finally get to Guadalupe National Park I have another idea on how to initiate the Black Death!